Last week I spent some time abroad. It is always good to step out of your normal routines and why don’t we do it in this blog as well. In my summer holidays I visited friends in the Czech Republic. First in the capital Prague and later in the eastern regions of Moravia and (Czech) Silesia. Although I was on vacation I couldn’t help noticing what cycling in the Czech Republic was like. All my friends there cycle, but only for recreation, not for their daily commute. That is in line with what I observed in the streets. The bikes and the cycling environment are indeed more suitable for recreational cycling. Most cycling infrastructure, away from through traffic, is to be found in parks or in the mountains, not on routes people would use for their daily business.
The historic city center of Prague has a lot of car free or car poor areas and the area is also expanding. Just last April a large part of the important Wenceslas Square (Václavské náměstí) became car free and the asphalt will soon be gone when the square is rebuilt to the needs of pedestrians. Information I got from signs on the square, telling the public this conveniently in English too. In these pedestrianized areas many people cycle. But to me, the rest of the streets of the Czech capital did not look very inviting to be cycling in. Most arterial roads have multiple lanes with fast moving motorized traffic. An environment in which cyclists seemed trapped. Most of the cyclists I did see were young and fit. I found out the modal share of cycling in the Czech Republic is 3%. Given the number of cyclists I saw, I would have expected it to be higher, but Summer always is the best time to see people cycling of course. Incidentally the Czech website “Cyklostrategie” does state a much higher figure of 7.3% but I didn’t find that higher figure acknowledged anywhere else.
In the towns and cities I visited in the East, things were slightly different. More people seemed to cycle for their daily business. I saw fewer helmets and more shopping baskets. The streets looked a lot less hostile for cyclists and the cyclists were considerably older. I saw some very good cycling infrastructure in the cities Ostrava and Olomouc. But I could not judge whether it was a complete network. Cycling on the country roads between the cities and villages looked simply terrifying. Motorized traffic speeding up to 120 km/h, where 90 is allowed (or 75 in a 55mph road) on roads where cyclists have to turn left or cross freeway-like exits and entries was scary to witness. Yet there were many cyclists on such roads.
In the Moravian mountains I saw that everything was catered for the mountain biker. Clearly marked trails on and near the slopes that are used for skiing in winter and hooks for mountain bikes on the cable lift so you could start on the top and work your way down. It leads to spectacular videos. Large facilities for mountain bike repair and rental and many people using mountain bikes were even more confirmation that cycling is really a passed time activity in the Czech Republic.
To sum it all up, looking around the Czech Republic with Dutch eyes these things were striking to me:
• A very high number of people choosing to ride with helmets (even without general helmet law)
• Almost no children cycling (since 2006 there is an obligation to wear a helmet for the under 18)
• Almost everyone cycles on some sort of ‘mountain bike’
• Many people ride on the sidewalks
• People dismount to cross streets and to go through larger junctions
• There is only little infrastructure for bicycles
• The infra that is there ranges from very poor to sometimes very good
• There are supplemental plates for traffic signs to exclude cyclists from one way streets
• Cycle routes (albeit through ‘normal’ streets) are well signposted
• Cycling on country roads looks very dangerous
• Smaller towns and cities seem to have more utility cycling
• Most cycling is clearly done for recreational purposes.